Sinovets Polina*: Nuclear Weapons in the Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation: Evolution of Approaches to its Use.


The Russian national military strategy is formed under the influence of the attempts not to lose its influence at least in the nuclear sphere, in which it is a monopolist leader, with the account of nuclear potential accumulated during the Soviet years. In the beginning of 1990th having no sufficient funds for  maintenance of its nuclear  potential, Russia, in the language of nuclear deterrence, tries to reaffirm such its category, as the credibility of retaliation.

Until the beginning of the 1990s there was a doctrine of the national security in the USSR based on the thesis of no-first-use, proclaimed by Moscow as early as in 1982. The position of the Soviet Union at that time was largely stipulated by the fact that it had an advantage in conventional armaments in Europe and controlled the situation there. With the collapse of the Warsaw Treaty Organization and the USSR, Russia and NATO have changed places - today Russia can rely only on its  nuclear forces in the military sphere, which has affected the military doctrine of Russia after 1992. In 1992, it contained a thesis: "Russia will not be the first to use nuclear weapon or any other weapons of mass destruction ", which has disappeared in the final version.¹

In November 1993, a new doctrine gives negative guarantees of the use of nuclear weapons. Namely: "The Russian Federation will not use its nuclear weapons against any State Party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, except for the following cases:

A) an armed attack of a state bound by a union agreement with a nuclear-weapon state against the Russian Federation, its territory,

B) the joint actions of such a state with a nuclear-weapon state in the implementation or support of an invasion or armed attack against the Russian Federation, Russian troops and  its allies.

There are two obvious tendencies in this formulation:

• Against the background of the stringency of the conditions for the use of nuclear weapons, there is still a certain imitation of the Soviet wording;

• Although Russia's commitments are presented in the form of negative guarantees, the document no longer has the thesis of being the first to use nuclear weapons. At the same time, the idea of a nuclear response is still maintained only for states that are capable of threatening Moscow with nuclear weapons.

The reasons for lowering  the nuclear threshold of the Russian Federation should be sought in the context of the rapid reduction of the strategic forces, first of all, missile potential of the Russian Federation. In particular, the issue of the future of the Russian missile potential was aggravated in connection with the START-2 signed on 3 January, 1993, which banned the production of heavy ICBMs. As a result of this restriction, Russia was supposed to destroy the basis of its strike potential – missiles MIRVed SS-18 and SS-19, carrying respectively ten and eight warheads each. The fact that, as a result of the collapse of the USSR, Russia lost its principal all-Union ICBM production plant (Southern Machine-Building Plant in Dnipropetrovsk), in fact, put Moscow in a predicament. On the one hand, it was necessary to radically expand the capacities of a missile factory in Votkinsk, on the other hand - to destroy a whole generation of the most powerful Soviet missiles, replacing them with new, monoblock ones. And "Topol-M" missile was developed in Votkinsk precisely as the monoblock one, so given the economic situation in the mid-1990s, the Russian Federation had the opportunity to take into service not more than three ICBMs per year. In addition, Russia was supposed to restructure its strategic triad in accordance with the American model - 2/3 of the warheads should be at the naval component of the SNF, 1/3 - on the land. This is despite the fact that for the Soviet Union the most traditional was the reliance on land based ICBMs (65% of SNFs, whereas only 16% went for the submarine-launched ballistic missiles), a structure logically justifiable by its territorial potential.³ The only positive moment for Russia was the proposed by the Treaty bilateral reduction of warheads to 3000-3500 pieces, which somehow compensated for the rapid aging of the Russian Strategic Nuclear Force.⁴ It should be noted that if START-2 were fully implemented, it would probably have been one of the strongest impacts on the credibility of Russian nuclear deterrence. The only solution saved was that the ratification of the Treaty took place in 2000, and in 2002 Moscow left the START-2, effectively replacing it with the SORT Treaty.

Gradual degradation and reduction of Russia's conventional armed forces against the background of their future participation in the START-2 Treaty make Moscow pay more and more attention to nuclear deterrence. Besides, increased attention to nuclear weapons in 1996-1997 was caused by the planned expansion of NATO eastward. This process has incited fears about a possible military clash with the alliance - not a large-scale but limited, like air strikes, inflicted on Bosnian Serbs in 1994-1995. According to the idea of the Russian military, the possible goal of the NATO invasion could be to intervene into the Chechen issue or weaken the influence of Moscow in the CIS.

The new threat, accordingly, forms new tasks for the Russian defence strategy, and, above all, deterring the limited attack by conventional armaments at the territory of the Russian Federation. Russian troops see solving this task by increasing the role of tactical nuclear weapons as more suitable for local conflicts.

Thus, during this period, Russian nuclear weapons find a new mission that, in fact, was absent in the nuclear doctrine of the state.

 A great deal of attention was paid to the problem of nuclear weapons in the message of President Yeltsin to the Federal Assembly in 1996:

"The Russian Federation retains the status of a nuclear-weapon state for the period under consideration to prevent a nuclear attack or large-scale aggression with the use of conventional armed forces and armaments against it and / or against its allies, as well as to provide new Commonwealth of Independent States with nuclear guarantees as part of the agreement on military issues ".⁵ Hence, large-scale aggression with the use of conventional forces levels with a nuclear attack as an incentive to use the nuclear potential of Russia.

      The 1997 National Security Concept explicitly states: "Russia reserves the right to use all its forces and facilities at its disposal, including nuclear weapons, if, as a result of unleashing the armed aggression, there is a threat to the very existence of the Russian Federation as an independent sovereign state».⁶ In other words, in the form of positive guarantees, Russia's readiness to use nuclear weapons is declared here "in the case of a threat to the existence of the Russian Federation", and the kind of weapons that could provoke a Russian nuclear response is no longer limited to a specific wording.

In March, 1999, President Yeltsin stated: "…Basic provisions of the policy of the Russian Federation in the sphere of nuclear deterrence", where the use of nuclear weapons as "extreme measures" is sanctioned in response to an attack against the Russian Federation, its allies, or any state with which Russia has mutual security commitments. At the same time, not only the type of weapons of the attacker is not discussed, but also the degree of threat to the Russian Federation.⁷

And in April, 1999, the Kosovo conflict dictated to Moscow the need for a nuclear strategy to be transformed in line with the new challenge. The military exercise "West-99" held in the summer of the same year, was a staging of NATO's attack on the Kaliningrad Province according to the Yugoslav scenario. As a result, two targets in Europe and two targets in the United States were virtually hit by air-launched cruise missiles equipped with nuclear warheads. After conducting several similar exercises before 2000, we can talk about a new task, which is now carried out by the nuclear forces of the Russian Federation. It is a question of the de-escalation of limited conflicts.⁸

Military doctrine 2000 of the Russian Federation provides for the use of nuclear weapons in response to:

• use of nuclear or other types of weapons of mass destruction against the Russian Federation or its allies;

• Large-scale aggression with the use of conventional weapons in critical situations for national security of the Russian Federation.

         At the same time, the text confirms the possibility of the first nuclear strike "if all other means are depleted or proved inefficient". In other words, the provision as for the situation "critical for the national security of Russia" already clearly indicates Moscow's high readiness to use nuclear weapons first for defence purposes.⁹

The military doctrine of 2014 opens a new page in the understanding of the possibilities of using nuclear weapons by the Russian Federation.

First of all, it should be noted that Moscow is clearly drawing a "red line" for the West regarding the territories which it considers its own sphere of vital interests. In particular, these are the neighboring states of the Russian Federation, and, first of all, Ukraine. These interests are considered vital by Moscow and therefore it is ready to defend them with arms.

How important these "red lines" are for the Russian Federation, can be understood, if you read prominent Russian political scientists. Actually, Sergei Karaganov, who was chairman of the Foreign Policy and Defence Committee of the State Duma of the Russian Federation once, and now being a prominent political scientist, said in 2014 that Russia was struggling for the territories considered vital for its survival.¹⁰ Hence, he repeats Z. Brzezinski's thesis that without Ukraine, Russia is not Russia, as it sees itself - an empire.

In order to survive, Moscow is ready to use nuclear weapons, i.e., the 2014 Doctrine confirms the thesis as for the de-escalating role of nuclear weapons, using the concept of "predetermined damage ", which was introduced by the 2000 Doctrine.¹¹

In particular, "predetermined damage" is defined as "the damage  that is subjectively unacceptable to an enemy as it  exceeds the benefits that an aggressor expects to receive as a result of the use of military force.¹² This concept refers to two types of conflicts - traditional strategic deterring, and the containment of a limited attack using conventional weapons. According to the Doctrine, a large-scale (global) nuclear war today is not on the list of top-priority threats. The emphasis on the limited use of nuclear weapons appears in the Military Doctrine of 2000 as a reaction to the Kosovo conflict. The main object of deterrence in this situation is the American conventional potential, which can be used as an instrument of political pressure on Russia.¹³

In other words, we see that since 1992, the nuclear doctrine of the Russian Federation has evolved from non-use of nuclear weapons in  the first strike to a "critical national security situation", i.e., the use of nuclear weapons in a regional war. It should also be pointed out that the nuclear threshold of the Russian Federation substantially depends on the level of development of its conventional armaments, i.e., it is expected that the nuclear threshold will not be further reduced significantly with the development of conventional weapons. It should also be noted that, in this context, the prospects of arms control today are minimal, since Russia has finally reached the level of NATO with regard to conventional arms and it will use its advantage in order to continue to divide Europe into spheres of influence through the strength of its armaments.

Also, the idea of "the concert of nations" based on a system of nuclear deterrence looks rather resonant, especially compared to the idea of "global nuclear scratch", which Obama has recently put forward. But, as we see, in Russia's worldview, it has suffered a fiasco, and the question of how Russia will succeed in imposing a "concert of forces" on the world based on nuclear deterrence is, I think, one of the key issues for the future.

Finally, I wanted to point out that nuclear weapons for Russia are, first and foremost, means to claim a degree of equality with the West as a mighty superpower, to demand respect and keeping for the spheres of influence inherent in the international relations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


* Information about the Author:

Dr. Polina Sinovets Director, Odessa Centre for Nonproliferation, Odessa I.I.Mechnikov National University

The article is based on the presentation at the International Conference «Russia’s nuclear arsenal: myths, real threats and counteraction»


1 Сафранчук И. Развитие ядерной политики России: проблемы и перспективы//Научные записки ПИР-Центра. - 2000. -- №14. –p.24.

² Сокут С. Доктрина Сергеева не жёстче предыдущей// Независимая Газета. -2000.- 19 February, №31.

³ Ibid. – p.p.229-230.

Treaty between the Russian Federation and the United States of America   on the Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms, 3 January, 1993. www.armscontrol.ru/start/rus/docs/dogovor.htm

⁵ Послание президента России к Федеральному Собранию – Независимая Газета. – 1996. –  25 February, №17

⁶ Концепция национальной безопасности Российской Федерации (approved by the Decree of the President of the Russian Federation of 17 December, 1997, #1300) http://www.armscontrol.ru/start/rus/docs/snconold.htm

⁷ Кокошин А.А. Ядерные конфликты в ХХІ веке. – М.: Изд-во «Медиа -Пресс», 2003.- p.88.

⁸ Sokov N. Why Do States Rely on Nuclear Weapons? The Case of Russia and Beyond//Nonproliferation Review. – Summer 2002.- Vol.9, N.2.- P.103-104.

⁹ Военная доктрина Российской Федерации.(approved by the Decree of the President of the Russian Federation of 21 April, 2000 // Независимая Газета. – 2000. - 22 April, №74.

¹⁰ Караганов С., “Причина этого конфликта – заблуждения Запада, поэтому русские не сдаются”, Россия в глобальной политике,,  24.09, 2014 http://www.globalaffairs.ru/pubcol/Prichina-etogo-konflikta--zabluzhdeniya-Zapada-poetomu-russkie-ne-sdadutsya-16975 (Access: 25.02.2015).

¹¹  Военная доктрина Российской Федерации,  29 декабря, 2014, http://www.rg.ru/2014/12/30/doktrina-dok.html (Access: 9.01.2015).

¹² Военная доктрина Российской Федерации.(approved by the Decree of the President of the Russian Federation of 21 April, 2000 // Независимая Газета. – 2000. - 22 April, №74.

¹³ Sokov N. Evolution in Nuclear strategy in S and Russia and its Implications in Arms Control//Proliferation papers, Spring 2003. – Paris: Institute francais de relations internationals. -  P.19.




07.07.2017 18:00:00